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World News

Palestinian PM Fayyad seen at risk to "new" Fatah

RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, an independent technocrat favored by the West, may face pressure to cede his post to a figure from the resurgent Fatah movement, political sources said on Wednesday.

Members of the Palestinian security forces stand guard in front of pictures of President Mahmoud Abbas and the late Yasser Arafat outside the Fatah congress in the West Bank town of Bethlehem August 9, 2009. REUTERS/Nayef Hashlamoun

Western diplomats said this might be one outcome of Fatah’s landmark congress in Bethlehem, its first in 20 years and first on Palestinian soil, which senior figures say has strengthened the movement and its leader, President Mahmoud Abbas.

“This has always been on the cards. It remains to be seen what the president wants,” said a Western diplomat. “Remember, it’s a caretaker government and it’s entirely up to Abbas.”

A senior Fatah official speaking on condition of anonymity said it would be “natural to review Fatah’s position now that we have a new leadership (with) the right to reconsider its representatives in the government.”

Many in Fatah have been irked by Abbas’s reliance on Fayyad, a former International Monetary Fund official, and complain budget cuts have hit the party and its loyalists.

Fayyad’s supporters, including Western aid donors, say the premier has curbed corruption and waste that Fatah’s critics say were the hallmarks of its earlier rule.

A source close to the prime minister said: “The government should enjoy the official support of the biggest party.

“This means that the government may be changed, reshuffled or stay. But at the end of the day, the government should be publicly backed by the ruling party, not only by (Abbas).”

A second diplomatic source said rumors of Fayyad’s likely replacement were merely “background chatter” prompted by shifting political fortunes at the congress, and predicted no change of prime minister.

Fayyad had tendered his resignation in March, apparently partly in frustration at opposition from Fatah. But Abbas refused and confirmed him in the premiership in May, heading a cabinet with more Fatah representation. There were simply no credible alternatives to Fayyad, the second diplomat said.

“STIR THINGS UP”

The congress, now in its ninth day, was still counting votes on Wednesday for seats on the movement’s general assembly, called the Revolutionary Council. Abbas, 74, was expected to hold a news conference once results were final.

Fayyad, 57, has headed the caretaker Palestinian Authority government for the past two years, since Abbas dismissed an elected, Hamas-led government following fighting in the Gaza Strip in which the Islamists defeated Fatah-led forces.

He is rejected outright as a Western puppet by the Islamist Hamas movement which runs the Gaza Strip and is Fatah’s main political rival for dominance of the Palestinian cause.

Some commentators say the forced retirement of several of Fatah’s “old guard” who lost to younger generation leaders in the convention’s ballot for a new Central Committee could breath new life into so far vain efforts to reconcile the two groups.

Others point out, however, that the “new faces” on the top executive body are, nonetheless, veterans of the upper reaches of a long dominant party whose critics blame it for corruption, poor governance and a failure to win statehood for Palestinians.

Fayyad has no significant power base of his own but is popular for his grass-roots engagement. Hamas would welcome his removal at any time. They consider him an obstacle to dialogue because of his security crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank.

Fayyad’s government has made progress in key areas. Public finance, once in chaos, is now up to international standards, he says. There is also better security in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, with U.S.-backed police helping curb crime and persuade Israel to ease some restrictions on movement.

Fatah stalwarts attacked Fayyad for a June 22 keynote speech which they said exceeded his authority.

Fayyad defended his outlook in an interview with Reuters on June 29, saying it was time for Palestinian leaders to “stir things up” and get on with building the independent state they seek, instead of waiting for a peace agreement with Israel.

Editing by Alastair Macdonald

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